There’s a 1928 New Yorker cartoon in which a chic-looking mother sits at a dinner table with her young daughter and urges to eat what’s on her plate: “It’s broccoli dear.” “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it,” replies the tot.
I am not the first to dredge up this cartoon in the wake of the Supreme Court’s health care decision, which mentioned broccoli a dozen times. As the New York Times detailed thoroughly a few weeks ago, being forced to buy broccoli became the right’s metaphor of choice for explaining why compelling people to buy health insurance is a bad idea. “It seemed an obvious thing that everyone thinks is good for you,” the conservative journalist who began the broccoli meme in 2009, Terence P. Jeffrey, told the Times. Jeffrey also said he thought of broccoli as “something that people would universally recognize was good for you.”
How did broccoli become the poster child of the good-for-you yet ostensibly bad-tasting vegetable? Why didn’t Jeffrey seize on spinach, or Brussels sprouts, or peas as an example of produce that liberty-loving Americans would hate to be forced to buy?
Broccoli has long been an othered vegetable in America. As late as the 1920s, most Americans (the ones who had heard of it, anyway) associated it disdainfully with the Italian immigrants who were its primary consumers. (This may explain the New Yorker cartoon child’s unfamiliarity with the vegetable; spinach, on the other hand, had been familiar to WASPy Americans since the early 19th century.) According to Joel Denker in The World on a Plate, it wasn’t until 1928 that broccoli first was distributed regionally, and not until the mid-1940s, after intense marketing campaigns by broccoli distributors, that it gained recognition among non-Italians.
Recognition isn’t the same thing as popularity, and though Americans came to eat broccoli, they didn’t necessarily trust it. Broccoli remained an outsider during the canned-vegetable love-fest that was post-WWII suburban America—it’s nearly impossible to can. This fact meant that when Americans did consume it in the 1950s and 1960s, it was usually when their mothers or wives cooked it from scratch—which strengthened its association with the “well meaning but overbearing mother figure,” to quote The Rhetoric of Food editor Joshua Frye. Consider another New Yorker cartoon, from 1961, in which a man sitting at a diner under a sign reading “Mom’s Real Home Cooking” is harangued by a matronly waitress saying, “Eat your broccoli!” It’s hard to tell whether it’s a joke about broccoli or a joke about mothers.
The following year, the New York Times reported that Americans consumed, on average, seven pounds of carrots but only one pound of broccoli per year. Over the next couple of decades, broccoli earned a bit of hippie cred: It rated very highly on Frances Moore Lappé’s chart of the most protein-efficient vegetables in her seminal vegetarian treatise, Diet for a Small Planet, and, of course, took a starring role in Mollie Katzen’s meatless cookbook The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.
But broccoli didn’t become a conservative rhetorical weapon until 1990, when then-president George H.W. Bush declared, “I do not like broccoli and I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it and I'm president of the United States and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli." It was breathtakingly efficient conflation of American freedom and childish rebellion, and it set off a brief firestorm in the media (and prompted a tongue-in-cheek shipment of broccoli to the White House from the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association).
Of course, the 41st president of the United States is not the only broccoli-hater out there. Considering broccoli’s unique dual texture (dense, sometimes stringy stalks and clustered, frilly florets) and the fact that it’s difficult to disguise said texture (Adam Gopnik’s recipe for puréed broccoli notwithstanding), it’s no surprise broccoli has a bad rap among kids (who have a natural aversion to bitterness) and picky adults. And unlike spinach, which earned considerable points among children when Popeye entered the scene, broccoli has never gotten a pop-culture reprieve in the form of cartoon propaganda. (There is not a single broccoli character in the cast of Veggie Tales.)
Though the Supreme Court justices made the forced-broccoli-buying scenarios about as dry as possible in their opinions, the function of the metaphor as a rhetorical device is clear: It attempts to make listeners feel like kids at a dinner table, being coerced into doing something they don’t want to do by their overbearing mom.
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